Boeing’s Starliner Is Leaking Gas but Will Still Launch With NASA Astronauts

Boeing’s Starliner Is Leaking Gas but Will Still Launch With NASA Astronauts

NASA and Boeing set a new date for the first crewed test flight of the Starliner spacecraft despite an unresolved issue with a gas leak that was discovered earlier this month.

The Starliner Crewed Flight Test is now scheduled for liftoff on June 1 at 12:25 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft will ride on board United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket, carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the International Space Station (ISS).

This is the fourth launch date announced within a span of less than a month. The company was originally targeting May 6 for the liftoff of Starliner but a last minute anomaly with one of the Atlas V rocket’s pressure valves delayed the crewed test flight to May 17. Just days before the launch, however, Starliner teams detected a small helium leak in the spacecraft’s service module, prompting them to push the launch to May 21 before it was delayed indefinitely.

During this period, engineering teams were supposed to be fixing the small gas leak on the spacecraft. Rather than fixing the issue, NASA and Boeing have chosen to proceed with flying the astronaut crew on the leaky Starliner spacecraft, throwing caution to the wind. When asked why they’ve chosen not to resolve the issue, Boeing’s vice president Mark Nappi said that it would require taking apart the Starliner spacecraft at its factory, AFP reported.

The spacecraft consists of a reusable crew capsule and an expendable service module. Helium is used in the spacecraft’s thruster systems to allow the thrusters to fire without being combustible or toxic.

Starliner teams are set to monitor the helium leak ahead of the launch on Saturday, and NASA seems confident in its commercial partner. “We can handle this particular leak if that leak rate were to grow even up to 100 times,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a news conference on Friday.

Boeing’s Crewed Flight Test is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and is meant to transport crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) under a $US4.3 billion contract with the space agency. NASA’s other commercial partner, SpaceX, just launched its eighth crew to the space station.

Boeing’s crewed Starliner launch was initially set for February 2023, then postponed to late April and finally rescheduled for July 21, 2023. A few weeks before liftoff, however, the company announced that it was standing down from the launch attempt to address newfound issues with the crew vehicle, including a mile’s worth of flammable tape that had to be manually removed.

The Starliner program has been marred by mishaps and delays since its inception, and yet NASA doesn’t want to give up on having a second private crew ship to carry its astronauts to the ISS, ignoring some major red flags in the process.

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